Quickly and cost-effectively responding to climate change by valuing nature's services

The Climate Summit in Copenhagen will go down in history as among the world's largest ever to date: 119 heads of state and government representing countries that account for 89 percent of the world's GDP, 82 percent of the world's population and 86 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Leaders at COP 15 opening



(Photo of Danish COP15 President Connie Hedegaard, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon, British Prince Charles, Director of the UN climate secretariat Yvo de Boer t the opening ceremony 15 December: Keld Navntoft/Scanpix)

As impressive as this attendance is, the truth is most progress in protecting the environment happens out of the glare of the media spotlight.

It happens because of the willingness of governments, businesses, and individuals to pay attention to --  and fairly value --  the natural world and the almost incalculable worth of its ecosystem services, such as clean drinking water.

International treaties matter, but so does action closer to home.

We at TreePeople have been advocating for trees, for urban forests and watersheds, for the value of ecosystem services for years. So it's worth taking note when a powerful government agency such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vows to reform its practices to value the environment fairly instead of extracting value from it and often leaving it in ruins.

Back in 1992, following the Los Angeles riots, public agencies had quite a different idea about the value of the Los Angeles urban watershed.

For one thing they didn't believe it existed.

That year, while the city was hurting from the riots and their aftermath, the Corps of Engineers announced plans to raise the concrete walls of the Los Angeles River. The city had become so overpaved that stormwater could no longer sufficiently be absorbed by the land. The Corps justified their expensive decision by a calculation that a 100-year flood would risk 500,000 lives and $2.3 billion in damages.

When I protested that there was another way to solve this problem, a way that provided multiple benefits by restoring the natural urban watershed through strategically planting trees, removing paving, restoring soil health and harvesting rainwater (and employing the urban youth whose lack of opportunities were part of the root cause of the recent riots), I was told I had it wrong.

"The watershed," I was told, "isn't here. It's up in the mountains."

To make a long story short, they went ahead and poured the concrete.

As climate negotiators seek international solutions, I find it hopeful that that the White House Council on Environmental Quality now led by LA's own Nancy Sutley has released a new set of guidelines for U.S. projects constructed by the Corps of Engineers. According to the story in The New York Times:

The draft encourages a new policy for flood-plain management.

It directs planners to consider nonstructural approaches -- typically, using building codes, planning laws and education campaigns to manage flood plains and protect public safety, wetlands and other natural resources -- rather than proceeding with the construction of levees and dams.

How this will play out on the ground (and in our watersheds) remains to be seen.

But simply for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be now required to value and work with people and ecosystem services when formulating its plans may be a step forward in cost-effectively saving our urban watersheds. It's a hopeful move away from investing in costly fixes, one that could free up capital and solve multiple problems at once, healing nature and preventing and protecting against climate change.